by Beth Hutchinson
for the Pathfinder
February 19, 1998
When standardized test scores for 4th, 8th and llth graders in western Montana were published by the Missoulian on Super Bowl Sunday, local systems made a good showing. For many in the Seeley Swan and Blackfoot Valleys these results were no great surprise. Seeley Lake Elementary Fourth Grade was first in the state in Math and first in 59 Northwest Montana counties in Social Studies and Science. High School students ranked high also in Northwest Montana.
While it's "nice when you're on a winning team," said school superintendent John Hebnes, "Seeley Lake Elementary has always had good scores on its achievement tests."
Seeley Swan High School principal Kim Haines concurred, "It feels really good. I'm pleased. In our case we have the same curriculum, teaching materials and tests that are used in the larger Missoula County high schools. I think we benefit from being a small school with good teachers who have more time to show their caring and to work one-on-one with their students."
This is the first year that school districts have been required by state legislation to release standardized test scores. However, "releasing" them does not have to equate with publishing them. Joe Lamson, a specialist working with testing data for the Office of Public Instruction (OPI), indicated that the OPI had neither received any extra funding for processing requests nor issued any state sanctioned format for publishing. It remains to be seen how the comparative ranking system applied to the nine western counties will play out.
|FOURTH GRADE SCHOLASTIC SCORES|
|EIGHTH GRADE SCHOLASTIC SCORES|
|Swan Valley 8th||62.0||66.0||65.0||62.0||66.0|
SCHOLASTIC TEST SCORES
|SSHS 11th Grade||56||63||57||61||60|
They also emphasized that as much as they were pleased to see grade relevant teachers receive recognition, test results reflect the combined and cooperative efforts of the entire school team.
As Seeley's students move into junior and senior high school, there is a tendency for scores to move slightly downward. This may be a reflection of the limited course offerings available in small systems at a time when students are looking for increased individual choice. Also, older students often do not take standardized testing as seriously as younger students. Thirdly, as high school counselor Shawn Holmes observed, "Roughly half of the Seeley Swan 11th graders tend not to enroll in science and math."
On the whole, test score interpretation is a complex matter. Anyone with specific interests would benefit from meeting with local educators, especially counselors, to gain a more thorough understanding of these testing results.
Back in the trenches where students scored in the top two levels by either state or regional rankings, their three teachers have at least one factor in common; they have each been educating this town's children for over twenty years.
Kathy Davis and Gayle Gordon shared responsibility for teaching fourth graders during the 1995-1996 test year. The community recognizes that both are comitted and exciting teachers whose students love school.
Gordon speaks with resounding enthusiasm, "I still love my job! Learning (for the students) or whatever you do (for any worker) has to be fun. And one thing I have to say...If I didn't have a man (husband Les) who believed in excellence...I think he keeps me on my toes with the little kids."
Not particularly concerned with numbers or teaching to the test, Gordon sees fourth grade as a significant transistion year. She feels its important to focus on study skills so that individual students can find out which ones really work best for them. "Some children work and learn most effectively by themselves, others by working with a partner or in a group. Learning to recognize that different tactics are needed for reading content material as contrasted with fiction is important, too." She also values teaching children test-taking strategies so that they have fewer obstacles to making best use of their knowledge on a variety of test formats.
High school language arts teacher Les Gordon believes in aiming for excellence for older students as well. In regard to stressing "ideal" standards, he says, "We may never get there, but the harder we try, the closer we'll get." He even applies this expectation to grammar, a lost cause in many parts of the country, suggesting it's not hopeless "if you teach it. I emphasize grammar and useage at the freshman and sophomore levels and reinforce it in 11th grade. You need to sell it to the kids, to get them to understand that they will need it to be successful. Showing them how it's going to work in the long run to benefit them is the key."
Les Gordon's students also work on vocabulary, writing and literature. He seeks to keep a balance and to present a four year program that can be completed in four years.
He's excited about the county-instituted writing assessment to be introduced to SSHS ninth and tenth graders this year. This is an open-ended process in which students are provided with a writing prompt, develop an essay and have their product evaluated by a group of teachers each of whom reads and assesses the work.
As Les Gordon sees it, one of the best outcomes of high standardized test performance "is to develop pride and to encourage increased involvement from your students". He has come to believe strongly in the importance of systems (language being a great example of a system) and in making any of them function to their best level. "And," he said ironically, "This from a guy from the 60"s?"
District 34 state representative Doug Mood expressed pride in the local standings. "We've always known the quality of teachers in the Seeley Swan Valley is very high. It's very pleasing to see these results."
" I've been reading about the American tendency for students to do well through fourth grade and then to taper off. It's nice to see that we have a basic continuity at a high level of performance with only a slight decline at the upper levels."